I learned a lot in second grade. I learned how to ride a bike. A two-wheeler. It was a hand-me-down. It went to my big brother John first, then to Pat. Finally to me. I painted it so it sort of looked like new.
I learned how to sing. I was in the second grade choir for a couple of months.
I learned how to shoot a basketball into a ten-foot goal. The real deal.
I also learned how to play the clarinet. At least I was beginning to learn. My mom told me that all the girls went for clarinet players. At the time I thought girls were yucky so that didn’t have much bearing on my ambitions as a musician.
I learned a lot about human nature that year. I was quiet in second grade. I was a good student. I was afraid not to be.
My brothers and I went to Saints Peter and Paul Elementary School. It was a big Catholic school in Merrillville, Indiana, just outside of Gary. We may have had a Gary mailing address back then. I was born in 1957, so I was in the second grade in 1964 and 1965. It was a strange time in our history. JFK was assassinated the year before. The US was becoming involved in Vietnam. The Beetles were just beginning to be huge.
Sister Rachael Marie was my second grade teacher. She was not a big woman but she was a terror to me. There were some tough kids in that school but everyone was afraid of her. Beginning in second grade, I was one of those children.
Sister Rachael Marie pulled hair for talking out of turn and slapped faces when boys forgot their ties or the girls forgot their beanies. Sister Rachael Marie tipped over desks if they were too messy to suit her. She would accompany the tipping with shouting and in-your-face intensity. One could miss a lot of recess time for having a messy desk.
Sister Rachael Marie knew how to make kids cry. It was kind of her specialty. It was harder to make some kids cry than others. Me? I cried when she just gave me the evil eye for forgetting an assignment. I was easy. I was rarely hit, rarely had my hair pulled and I learned quickly to keep my desk clean. I cried quickly as a way of defending myself. Sister seemed to go easier on you if you could bring on the water works.
My friend James was a boy who would not cry easily. I had seen him slide into second base on the asphalt playground, ripping his trousers and skinning his knee, thigh and hip. I mean I could actually see him bleeding through his tattered pants. I would have been bawling at the sight of my own blood let alone the pain. Not James. He was tough. He was also safe at the base.
James was cool too. He had shoes that you could slip on with no laces. His hair was considerably longer than the rest of the boys. He had a brother in the public school junior high who was into the Beetles and the Rolling Stones. James’ brother was kicked out of Peter and Paul, I never knew the reason. That’s why he went to Merrillville Jr. High.
James usually had his hair slicked back. This bothered Sister Rachael Marie. She ridiculed him about his hair. She questioned how his family could even send him to a Catholic school looking like that. She tried to embarrass him by saying that he looked like a girl. James didn’t care what she thought. That must have been what really bothered her about him. I thought James was cool. I wanted to be like him. We played together at school and once he even came over to my house. Nowadays we would call that a play date.
His brother wore Brylcream in his hair. Brylcream is the equivalent to today’s styling gel. Sister called it grease and thought it was disgraceful. Sister despised him and often picked on him. He didn’t care.
James was likable. We all sort of looked up to him. He was a nice kid. He was tough. He was my neighbor in school, that is, we sat next to each other.
There was this time when Sister was walking up and down the aisles while we were busy doing seatwork. She had the most beautiful cursive handwriting I had ever seen. She even offered to give my father handwriting lessons after he sent in a written excuse for my having missed school once.
On that day, Sister Rachael Marie stopped by my desk. She sniffed. “What on earth is that smell?” she demanded. She glanced at me accusingly. I shrugged my innocence, getting ready to cry if she interrogated me any further. Body language was the best strategy with Sister. Words often got you into trouble.
She looked to her right. James looked up shrugging innocently. She bent over him and sniffed again. She turned to me. I shuddered. Then she snapped back to James. “It’s you!” she shrieked, grabbing James by the neck. He dropped the fat black pencil he was holding onto the floor. That pencil, with its chewed end just rolled down the aisle.
“What did you put in your hair?” Each of her words made me cower lower in my seat. He didn’t speak. “Answer me!” she yelled.
“Bacon grease, Sister,” James choked out. “I’m sorry.”
“What on earth were you thinking? To the office!” By this time she had jerked him out of his seat by the ear. James winced in pain as he rose to his feet. But he did not cry. That boy had a high threshold of pain. I would have been blubbering like a baby and begging for forgiveness, for release. He simply wouldn’t or couldn’t cry. Then she pulled his hair.
“How dare you do that to yourself? That’s filthy! It’s disgusting! What will your father say?” If his parents were anything like mine, they would have probably laughed about it and called him a goofball. It really wasn’t that big of a deal. Somehow I think she felt like she owed him, like he had gotten away with too much lately. Why else would she have pulled his hair like that?
“I… don’t… know…Sister…” The words came out with little spaces between them, little puffs. Spaces that I knew were filled with pain. I could see his scalp rise at the front of his hairline. His clip on bowtie was askew. His eyes were squeezed shut. He was waiting for her to let go. We all knew that she wouldn’t until she got what she was looking for.
“What will your father say?” she repeated. Now she shifted her grip from the front of his hair to his sideburns. Of course we were too young for real sideburns but Sister knew what to do. She grabbed that little piece of hair just in front and above his ear. This was the foolproof way to make someone cry. She knew it and James knew it too. She grabbed that little piece of hair and pulled it hard.
James shut his eyes even tighter. He wasn’t trying to be brave; it was just not in his nature to cry. We all knew she wouldn’t stop pulling until he did. It was her currency.
I said a little prayer for James. I prayed that he would cry. I prayed that Sister would let him go. Perhaps I should have prayed for Sister to have a kinder heart, for her to have mercy on this little boy. James, who was so cool. James, who was my friend.
After what seemed like a very long time a tear welled up in the corner of one of his eyes. He never squealed or moaned. But he did begin to cry. All of us who could see that tear hoped that it would signal the end of Sister Rachael Marie’s discipline. That tear grew slowly until it slipped down his cheek and onto his handwriting paper. A big round wet spot that blurred the pink and blue lines.
When she saw this she simply let him go. James’ face was blotchy. He sat back down. Respectfully. Now there were tears in both of his eyes. His nose was runny and he wiped it with the back of his sleeve.
Perhaps she had forgotten her demand that he go down to the principal’s office. Or maybe she figured that her discipline had worked. After all, she had brought James to tears, something I’d never thought possible.
“Well, now,” Sister sighed. “Where were we? Oh yes, the letter Q. You may think that it looks like the number 2 but there is a difference…”
At some point in our lives we stop crying for pain. I’m sure it’s different for everyone but as adults we reserve our tears for the death of loved ones or bitter arguments or particularly sad movies or books. At some time we forget about crying for pain. We may cry out in pain when we hit our thumb with a hammer or close a finger in the door but, for most of us, physical pain does not bring on tears as it did in our youth. But, in second grade most children cry tears of pain. Everyone I knew did. Everyone but James.
Did Sister know this? Is that why she was so hard on him? Was she conducting a subconscious experiment on human nature or was she just curious to find his threshold?
We learned lots from Sister Rachael Marie. We learned beautiful cursive writing. We learned our addition and subtraction facts forwards and backwards. We learned to sit up straight and to keep our desks in order. We learned to line up our desks in straight rows. We learned to, “straighten up and fly right”.
We learned to look into the face of Sister when she was talking to us and not to whisper to our neighbors. We learned respect for authority.
That year my dad taught me how to tie a real necktie. The girls learned how to clip their beanies to their heads with bobby pins.
In second grade I made my first confession and took First Holy Communion. I had my first real crush on a girl. It was real to me.
That year I learned how to build a model car from my brother Pat. I learned how to bunt a baseball from my neighbor Rick and to play kick the can with my neighborhood boys. I learned how to catch lightening bugs without squashing them and how to catch a garter snake without being bitten. I learned how to catch tadpoles from the swamp and to change their water so I could watch them change into froglets.
I learned to cry that year too. Of course I had cried countless times before (I had two older brothers and three older sisters who honed their teasing skills on me).
On my way home from school the day that James cried, I cried too. I didn’t ride the bus home as I usually did. I didn’t want to be around my friends. I remember sitting down in a weedy empty lot, setting my books down next to me and sobbing for James. I cried until my head ached and my nose ran. I cried until I coughed. Then I pulled myself together, gathered my things and walked home.
When I saw James in school the next day he didn’t even mention the incident. I never saw him cry again.